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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
An Introduction to Felix Mendelssohn
Overture: The Hebrides, Op.26 (1832)* [10:19]
Piano Concerto No.1 in g minor, Op.25 (1831)** [20:25]
Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.61 (1843)+ [4:57]
Capriccio brilliantłOp.22 (1832)** [11:28]
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90, Italian (1842)++ [29:43]
Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson*; Howard Shelley/London Mozart Players**; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves+; Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Weller++
rec. (P) 1981, 1992, 1993, 2006. No further details given. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN2025 [76:51]


Experience Classicsonline

I was unaware of the existence of Chandos’s series of Introduction to ... recordings until they very generously offered every recipient of their e-newsletter the opportunity freely to download their Introduction to Vaughan Williams.

The opening performance of The Hebrides Overture (better known as Fingal’s Cave) emphasises the mystery of the music rather than the excitement of the crashing waves – Mendelssohn was struck by both aspects of his visit to the cave on the island of Staffa. For all that it fails to live up to some of our usual expectations of this music, it’s an accomplished performance. It’s been recycled quite frequently – it was even once available on the short-lived Boots own label together with other maritime music and it’s also on Spirit of Scotland, CHAN10412X, and Seascapes, CHAN6538 – but it’s none the worse for that and the recording has worn well.

The inclusion of the first Piano Concerto, rather than the expected Violin Concerto, is for me the highlight of the CD. Most collectors, even those for whom an Introduction to ... would be likely to appeal, will already have a version of the Violin Concerto, or be likely to obtain one at an early stage, usually coupled with the Bruch or Tchaikovsky – there are plenty of versions to choose from, even in the lower price categories. 

It’s quite unusual to find a bargain-price version of the First Piano Concerto: Peter Katin’s versions of both Piano Concertos once featured on a Decca Weekend recording, coupled with the Capriccio brilliant and Rondo brillant (425 504-2, long deleted) – good performances but in rather dated sound. Otherwise, as far as I am aware, the only competitor in this price range is Benjamin Frith’s Naxos version of the four works (8.550681), which I haven’t heard but which has been favourably reviewed.

That the performance offered is by Howard Shelley - as soloist and director of the London Mozart Players - is an added bonus, since this performance combines technical virtuosity and a delicacy of touch that ensures that this early work is never overwhelmed. Shelley’s tempo in the outer movements is brisk – he moves the music along without sounding rushed, especially in the Finale where he takes 6:11 against 6:54 on the Katin/Collins recording. In the slow movement, he gives the music time to breathe – 6:39 against Katin’s 6:13 – without sentimentalising it. 

In the Capriccio brilliant he also give the music time to breathe – 11:28 against Katin’s 10:35; ensuring that the brilliance inferred by the title is not at the expense of expressiveness. When the brilliant music arrives, it is all the more effective for the contrast with the rather measured opening Andante. My only real criticism of this introductory CD is that it will probably lead buyers to duplication when, as they will be tempted to do, they purchase the parent Chandos CD, where Shelley performs both concertos plus the Capriccio (CHAN9215). 

The Wedding March was an inevitable choice and it’s performed well by the RLPO under Sir Charles Groves, stately but not pompous. 

If the two piano works make an unexpected but very welcome appearance on the CD, the more predictable choice of the Italian Symphony as the final work is equally welcome in the Philharmonia/Walter Weller version. Again, as with the Shelley performance, my only complaint is that those seeking recommendable versions of all Mendelssohn’s symphonies – and, surely, most collectors will want at least Nos.3-5, the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies at some fairly early stage – are unlikely to find a better combination of affordable price, quality of performance and recording than the 3-CD Chandos set with Walter Weller (CHAN10224X). 

Weller’s tempi for the symphony are generally on the fast side, though by no means excessively so. This is one of those works, like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, where the outer movements lend themselves well to fast speeds. I felt that Weller might have given the slow movement a little more time to breathe, but it is marked Andante con moto. The con moto element is more in evidence here than in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s otherwise very fine performance with the predecessor of the same orchestra (then called the New Philharmonia) in 1966. The Sawallisch was formerly on Philips 422 470-2 with the Reformation Symphony (no longer available). How about a reissue from Australian Eloquence? 

Only in the Finale is Weller marginally slower than Sawallisch; this movement combines elements of the saltarello and tarantella, both lively Italian dances. The latter is said to be imitative of the action of stamping on a poisonous tarantula spider or leaping about in agony after its bite – as the Latin American cucaracha imitates stamping on cockroaches. I would have preferred a slightly more hectic pace in this movement. At least, that was my feeling on my initial hearing – subsequently this account of the Finale has grown on me. 

Though made at different times, all the recordings are more than acceptable. I tried the lossless download version (wma) from Chandos’s and found it fully equal to CD quality; experience suggests that even the mp3 version would be more than acceptable. I couldn’t find this recording at classicsonline or on eMusic, both of whom do offer many Chandos downloads. 

For a low-price series, all the notes which I have seen from this Introduction to ... series have been excellent and this recording is no exception. If the programme appeals, buy with confidence; the only reason why I have withheld any accolade is the likelihood that purchasers are likely to duplicate these performances in building their collection. 

Don’t forget the Introduction to Vaughan Williams (CHAN2028) if you weren’t fortunate enough to receive the free offer. It contains The Wasps Overture, the Greensleeves Fantasia, The Lark Ascending, that favourite of Classic FM listeners, and the Second Symphony, all in more than decent performances. I was particularly pleased to see Bryden Thomson’s version of the symphony reappear in this form; it may not be quite the equal of the Barbirolli version from which I first got to know the work on a Pye Golden Guinea LP or Chandos’s own Richard Hickox performance of the original version, but it is well worth hearing as an alternative to the Hickox. Not everyone will want to hear the fuller version every time. I might have preferred the Tallis Fantasia to one of the shorter pieces – as a lover of Tallis, I’m fascinated by the perfect blending of the 16th and 20th centuries in this work. However I’m sure the Second was the right VW symphony to introduce to the beginner and the Thomson recording is one of the best from a variable series.

Brian Wilson


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